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Valley Journals

The rankings are in: Utah School for the Deaf and Blind is national leader in graduation rates

Jul 25, 2018 11:20AM ● By City Journals Staff

The Utah School for the Deaf and Blind Class of 2018. (Photo courtesy USDB)

By Heather Lawrence | heather.lawrence@mycityjournals.com 

The Utah School for the Deaf and Blind (USDB) received encouraging news this summer: they have the highest graduation rate of deaf and hard of hearing students in the nation. The announcement, made by the National Deaf Center on May 31, was compiled from five years’ worth of data.  

Joel Coleman, the superintendent for the USDB, celebrated the rating. “The nature of our support for children and families is comprehensive. From birth, we have a personalized approach to their education. The rankings are helpful because they show parents that we work hard and do the right things for their children,” he said. 

Their success is aided by the shiny new 48,000+ square-foot campus at 1665 East 3300 South designed by Jacoby Architects of SLC, which opened in October 2016. Coleman was instrumental in securing funding from the legislature for the building, which is designed to assist deaf, hard of hearing and blind students. “It was a very special project that we really enjoyed working on,” said a spokesperson for Jacoby. 

“Joel Coleman got it built in the most efficient and effective way possible,” said Susan Thomas, director of communications for the USDB. “At a recent appropriations meeting, legislators thanked Coleman for doing such a good job, applauding the efficiency and yet state-of-the-art design.” 

“For deaf students, it is bright and open. There’s lots of glass and lots of light. When you’re deaf, you can’t hear that someone is coming into a classroom or what’s happening in the hallway. You miss out on that. Windows and open areas give visuals into the halls and classrooms,” Thomas said. 

For the blind school, thoughtful additions made a big difference. “Most students have some vision, even if it’s just a pinpoint, so we use color. The doorways are colored red. We painted white stripes down the center of the hallways. And there is tactile siding on the walls with different textures for different grade areas.” 

The school design has won a handful of awards: Most Outstanding K-12 Project from Utah Construction & Design, 2016; Project of the Year K-12 Education from Association of General Contractors of Utah, 2016; Honor Award from American Institute of Architects Utah, 2017. The school was also selected to represent Utah this October at the AIA Western Mountain Regional Conference in the Lessons Learned component of the conference. 

USDB is a public school and receives funding from the State of Utah and private donations. All the students at USDB have an individualized education plan (IEP). Transportation, aides, tutors and other resources are provided as each IEP directs. Two-thirds of USDB students are at other schools around the state. They are connected to the school in part through deaf and blind specialists who come to them. 

Elizabeth Jones has worked as a deaf and blind specialist for three years. While in school for her master’s degree in special education, a deaf and blind specialist came to one of her classes to talk about what she did. Jones said something about the job really spoke to her.   

“I talked with her after class and she recommended me for a job opening,” Jones said. “Each day I have a case load and go meet one-on-one with students out in the district. I also work with administrators and provide ideas on how these students can better access the learning environment.” 

“My students are deaf and blind, a dual sensory loss. It depends on the IEP, but I see each one for about one hour per month, sometimes more. We serve students ages 0–22 of varying cognitive abilities. We use American Sign Language or visual cues or whatever communication is best,” said Jones.

The technology used by USDB lets them reach students in remote areas, like deaf high school student “K” in Paiute County. She can attach a microphone to her public school teacher, which feeds audio directly to a teacher at USDB. The teacher translates the instruction to ASL in real-time video, which feeds to a laptop on K’s desk. K says she is happy and proud to be deaf. 

“The interpreters at USDB are really amazing,” Thomas said. The school offers both modalities to their students: hearing techniques such as lip reading, and ASL. “It used to be that doctors encouraged families to choose one path over another, to be a part of the hearing community or the deaf community.” Thomas speaks from experience; she has a 19-year-old son who is hard of hearing. “I’m so happy to say that the war between listening and speaking and ASL is over! We give our kids both.” 

Thomas loves promoting the school because she wants families who are struggling to know there is help. “My son missed out on these kinds of education services because we didn’t know they existed. When I speak up, I might be helping a family out there.” 

Celebrating the students’ achievements at graduation is a unique affair. “Graduation was fantastic. Each of our dozen graduates gave a presentation on what they had accomplished. It was wonderful to see them expressing themselves,” Thomas said. ASL interpreters signed what was spoken, and speaking interpreters translated the ASL for the hearing members of the audience. 

With a new campus opening in Springville in December 2019, USDB’s programs can reach even more students. “Our schools do more than academics. This number one ranking shows we are doing good work. We’re sharing best practices with other teachers around the nation and world. It’s an honor to be in Utah leading the way with these great programs,” Thomas said.